Three Reasons Why It’s Old People’s Fault Millennials Don’t #VoteLocal

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Last week the Knight Foundation released a scathing report on the record low participation of millennials in local government. Why don’t millennials participate in local elections or care all that much about local issues? They don’t know anything about them. And, as a millennial who works four separate jobs that are all related to local politics, I am going to be very blunt about this: it’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the previous generations. But don’t worry old people, my criticisms may be harsh, but I assure you they will be constructive.

Here are the three core reasons, in my eyes, why millennials lack any knowledge or experience with local government and politics, and thus don’t feel comfortable enough to participate:

  1. Lack of Civic Education
  2. Local Government has a Fundamental Audience Problem
  3. Justified Cynicism is Misplaced (only because of the first two problems)

Lack of Civic Education

This one is actually pretty straight forward: millennials don’t know anything about local government because no one ever taught them about it. Think about it, when you were growing up in school you were taught math and english, some history, physical education, maybe some arts if you were lucky, and yes, government. But what did you actually study? The federal government. You learned that George Washington and his band of freedom loving rebels fought off the evil British crown and created the greatest system of government ever known, as governed by the Constitution and Bill of Rights. But what about community governance? Did you learn what a general plan is? Or how about what zoning is? Of course you didn’t. Neither did we.

I even studied politics and law in college, but never covered local politics. In fact the only reason why I even understand how a planning commission works is because I also studied environmental studies, and we had to research land use issues and permitting. Yet that governs how every single thing is built and operated in every single community!!!!!! It’s an absolutely fundamental concept to understanding the world around us, and it doesn’t even get a footnote is most curriculums.

How is it then in any way surprising that most millennials don’t feel comfortable voting on these types of issues? If I don’t know where my water comes from than what makes you think I would feel comfortable saying yes or no on a hundred million dollar water/sewer bond. What’s worse, if I don’t understand how public financing for capital improvement projects works, I am probably not inclined to support anything.

Here’s the good news, the solution to this problem is as straight forward as the problem itself. Mandate that local civics courses be incorporated into K-12 education. Education leaders seem to have no problem changing the common core standards every five years for the past two decades anyway.

Local Government has a Fundamental Audience Problem

Now this one transcends age, because local government has a hard time reaching anyone with its archaic and ineffective forms of community information sharing and outreach, but the problem is compounded when dealing with those of a younger generation, mainly due to information sources. I will spare you most of the glaring details as this topic has already been covered at length by many different people, most of whom are much more experienced and articulate than I, but the gist of it is that the way government currently communicates with its citizens is opaque and severely outdated.

Probably the best encapsulation of this failure is explained in a TED talk by Dave Meslin, who contrasts how government usually offers a call to action versus that of a private sector company. The example he uses is to compare a public notice of a new development (see below) to that of an advertisement for buying shoes. One has a clear call to action, is accompanied by a picture of what it is proposing, and clearly communicates to the audience how it can engage further. This is anything but what I just described:


Can you tell me what this says?

And don’t even get me started on having to navigate through various 1990s style websites to find a sideways photocopied site plan saved as a static PDF… Because I can go all day!!!!

But let’s talk about use of media and how that factors into civic participation. To illustrate this concept I will start with an example many of you are probably intimately familiar with. I live in Santa Cruz, which can definitely be considered a college town. Every year when students graduate or move away for the summer you will find our otherwise lovely city streets boasting a plethora of old furniture and mattresses, left by students who frankly have no idea what else to do with them. Every year I hear people complain about this problem, but not once have I ever witnessed the city attempt to reach out to these students in a way that might actually get to them.

For instance, I know that the city gives out special tags every year that I can use to get a free “bulky item pickup” from our trash collection service. I know this because I received them in my water bill, alongside a tacky newsletter that resembles a cheap coupon booklet. But let’s say I am student, who, chances are, lives in near absolute squalor with many other people. I probably don’t pay my own water bill, and am likely to have never seen or heard of this program. Is that my fault?

Now at this point some of you are probably asking about my supposed “constructive” criticism, and don’t worry, it’s coming. But I really want to drive this point home a bit more: if you want to give us information, use the channels that we actually use to receive it. 

Countless studies have already demonstrated that young people don’t read the local paper (have any young people besides me ever done this?). So use what we use: Social media, email, advertise at places and events we frequent, etc; really, this isn’t that hard. Hell, I can buy a Facebook ad this second, target it by age, gender, location, and interests, and reach 6,000 people for less than $75.00!!!!

Contrast this with the most recent post made by the City on their Facebook page:

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 7.09.06 PM

Much engagement, many sharing, wow.


Justified Cynicism is Misplaced (only because of the first two problems)

This last one is a bit more complex, because it involves feelings of trust and some political assumptions, but bear with me. The last major reason that millennials don’t participate locally is because we don’t distinguish between local government and the federal government. To many of us, it’s just the all encompassing “government”. This stems from our lack of civic education and the audience problem. And, in case you haven’t noticed, government as a concept is not winning many popularity contests right now. In fact most most people would rather eat dinner with a family of cockroaches than a member of Congress.

Yes millennials did show up to vote in record numbers in 2008 to elect Obama because, frankly, he inspired us to believe that government could change from what it was perceived as. Seven years later, and regardless of who you blame, not much has happened to change that original perception. And consider this, in our lifetime the cost of higher education has quadrupled, the cost of living has risen substantially while real earnings have either stagnated or declined, no government action has been taken to address climate change (despite an overwhelming majority of millennials believing this to be a core issue), and we have slogged through a financial crisis that has left most of us either chronically under employed or not employed at all.

To put this in context, I was at a political campaigning event yesterday that featured Joe Smitian, a local Supervisor from Palo Alto, as a panelist. Joe, bless his heart, said something I will never forget. “If people are going to trust you as a candidate, and government as a whole, you absolutely need to be able to answer one fundamental question: How has their government improved their life?”

He continued, “if you cannot answer that question then you have no business running for office.” Now I am paraphrasing a bit, but the core message here is pretty obvious: most millennials can’t answer this question. It is because of our lack of civic education, and the government’s inability to communicate, that our justified mistrust of what the federal government has (and hasn’t) done, that makes it so difficult for so many of us to care.


Robert Singleton is the cofounder of Civinomics, an online platform for creating, sharing, and discussing local policy. He also works as a Policy Analyst for the Santa Cruz Business Council, and as the Government Affairs Director for the Santa Cruz County Association of Realtors.


  1. Robert, your article suffers from two major misunderstandings about the relationship among citizens and government.

    It appears that you may not have thoroughly read the Knight Report cited: WHY MILLENNIALS DON’T VOTE FOR MAYOR – Barriers and Motivators for Local Voting. If you did read it to the end, I think you misunderstood it.

    The Knight Report does not lay the decline of “Millennials” voting participation at the feet of communications technology. There are many demographic factors, other than cell phone use, that reduce young people’s interest and participation in local government: mobility, lack of property ownership, declining media resources, mistrust of media sources and cultural norms. The report has little to say about digital media, other than this is what Millennials engage in and expect.

    Your plea to “use the channels that we actually use to receive it” ignores the fact that someone must organize a mass of highly volatile information and data and present it to you in a way that will pass through the filter of digital information delivery. If you don’t trust declining media sources for that information, why would you trust a predigested pabulum of Twitter feeds and text messages for understanding of the workings of local government?

    This leads to the second, and most important misunderstanding about government. Government is not them. Government is not individuals. Government is us, all of us, you and me and everyone else who lives in our community, our county, our state and our country.

    The process of government cannot be simplified into a one-click app on a smart phone, with fancy graphics and “Up” and “Down” responses. Government is not voting. Government requires day to day participation in the process of decision making, starting at home and moving through our communities to the representatives we elect to government positions. We don’t elect them to go do whatever they want in government. We elect them to represent us, and it is our responsibility as citizens to make sure that they adequately and accurately represent our interests.

    Involvement in government is involvement in community. We take part in government because we have a stake in the outcome of government decisions. In order to be responsible citizens, we have to find out, for ourselves, about programs, issues, departments, budgets – the mechanism and bureaucracy of carrying out the will of the people.

    Government handed to us on a platter, fully formed, demanding our approval, is totalitarian, not democratic government. Democracy is rule by the people. Yes, democracy is messy, slow, complicated, unwieldy, often frustrating, and rarely satisfies everyone involved. It sure beats the hell out of tyranny.

    Is there a place for digital technology in local government? Certainly. But it will never take the place of the citizen research, activism and participation required of citizens in a functioning democracy.

    • You focus too much on the emphasis placed on the audience problem. My first problem, lack of civic education addresses your understanding of government being “all of us”. Again, most millennials don’t realize how impactful local politics are, and certainly do not understand how to engage. I agree, communications technology is part of the problem, but the reason why civics education is the first thing I mentioned is precisely what you are alluding to. We need to teach our children more about community governance, so that they will engage on a day to day basis.

      And I also think you totally missed the point about information channels. Did you not read the example about the trash pick up tags? That’s not totalitarian, that’s a basic service accessibility problem. Also, where do I reference up or down voting via phone anywhere in this piece? Nowhere.

  2. Robert: I responded to the section in the article above, subtitled “Local Government has a Fundamental Audience Problem” which is 38 lines long, with two illustrations. Who is focusing too much on the emphasis placed on the audience problem?

    Learning about civic responsibilities requires two things, learners and teachers. Learning does not occur solely in formal schools. Learners can seek out teachers in the everyday world.

    It is not the fault of “old people” (that’s me you insulted with that disparaging headline) that Millennials are so ignorant of elementary civics. The world is out there to be learned by those who care to seek. No one has the responsibility to grab Millennials by the ear and march them into City Hall or the County building.

    If you feel you don’t know enough about government to vote intelligently, study up! Ask questions, go to meetings, meet your representatives and ask them about what they do. We have the most transparent and accessible government in the world. The answers are out there. Seek and Ye shall find.

    Please, whatever you do, don’t write any more whiny complaints about uninformed and helpless Millennial victims.

    P.S. You didn’t reference up and down voting. I did.

    • I am sorry you felt offended by the title. I was a bit snarky on purpose to make a point, and get more traction (it’s a good headline in world of twitter streams). But speaking of disparaging, you label my complaints as being whiny and helpless, which does them a fundamental disservice. I outlined plenty of constructive ways to address these issues, and even you should admit that they would help the situation.

      I will also admit that millennials bear a significant portion of the responsibility here, but certainly not all of it. The title of this piece aside, we can all do better. However, everything we learn in life comes from others, and most knowledge and practices come from our parents or their peers.

      Our generation may be the first in American history to have a lower standard of living than the generation prior, who’s fault is that? We have a failing education system, massive public debt, trillions of dollars in backlogged public infrastructure projects, an economy that is based on hyper inequality, and our institutions lack the fundamental capacity to change. We inherited this, and many of us our working very hard to address it.

      I am one of those “learners” you talk about, but we cannot expect everyone in an entire generation of people who haven’t been very empowered to do the same. Not everyone has the privilege of being as active as me. Not everyone has the time to attend public meetings or petition their elected leaders, or even seek out information about local issues. How is suggesting that we improve accessibility and tailor the avenues of participation toward the younger up and coming generation a bad thing? It’s not. It’s fundamentally the right thing to do. It seems to me you just took the article personally, which is not it’s intention.

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